Gavin Mortimer

Liberté, égalité and fraternité are being put to the test in France

Liberté, égalité and fraternité are being put to the test in France
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When I left my apartment for my morning run today I saw that someone had scrawled on the courtyard in large chalk letters 'Tenez Bon, Les Voisins' (Hang in there, neighbours).

It could have been a message for the whole country. France is flagging after two and a half weeks of complete lockdown and the fact that today is the start of the official Easter holidays will only fray nerves further. To make matters worse, the country will be treated to a taste of summer this weekend with temperatures from Paris to the Pyrenees forecast to touch 23C on Sunday.

In an interview today the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, revealed that since France went into lockdown on March 17 there have been 6.7 million identity checks resulting in 406,283 fines for breaching the rules of the ‘confinement général’.

Castaner warned the country that the police would be particularly vigilant this weekend as it was the start of the Easter holidays and anyone thinking of sneaking off to the seaside should think again.

At the moment there is a gentle groundswell of dissatisfaction with the ongoing confinement, but earlier in the week Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise, became the first prominent politician to demand answers about the length of the lockdown. Memes have started circulating on social media, among which is one inviting people to name the day when they'll crack.

Perhaps sensing the incipient agitation the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, has begun talking about how 'deconfinement' will be managed, intimating that people will regain their liberty in stages, based on immunity, age and geographical location.

Philippe will also be dismayed by the worsening economic and social situation in France. On Wednesday it was announced that new car sales in March had plunged by more than 72 per cent, prompting Francois Roudier of the French auto manufacturers' committee (CCFA) to declare: ‘It is historic, we have never seen a fall like this.’

On Thursday it was revealed that 3.9 million workers are on paid furlough or, as Labour Minister, Muriel Penicaud put it, ‘one out of five French workers in companies or associations are on partial unemployment.’

But arguably the most calamitous news was at the start of the week, when Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer disclosed that since the start of the lockdown between 5 to 8 per cent of pupils have been ‘lost’ with their teachers unable to reach them electronically. Blanquer said he feared France was in the process of ‘deepening the inequalities’ that already exist in many areas.

A friend, who teaches teenagers in a state school in an impoverished suburb of northern Paris, told me that her own experience supports Blanquer's statistics: despite launching a WhatsApp group for her pupils, four of them, all boys, have not clocked in for a fortnight.

The summer term in France starts on April 20 but Blanquer doesn't believe that pupils will return to the classroom until May 4 at the very earliest. The worry for him is that thousands more children will drift away from their electronic desk, particularly as Ramadan starts in April.

The timing of the month long fast is a headache that the government could have done without. While France's Muslim leaders have called on the faithful to observe Ramadan according to the confinement laws, and the vast majority will, there will undoubtedly be some young extremists who will see it as an opportunity to challenge Republican authority.

There have been reports of angry confrontations between gangs of youths and police in some areas in recent days, and according to the French equivalent of Private Eye, Le Canard Enchaîné, Laurent Nuñez, who works in the Ministry of the Interior, has implied that certain areas won't be as heavily policed, saying ‘it's not a priority if the rules aren't respected in certain districts’. This admission will give credence to those social commentators in France who have long warned of the 'Lost territories of the Republic', where French law is brazenly flouted. Nuñez was on the radio this morning warning the French that 160,000 police and gendarmes will be patrolling the country today because ‘the virus doesn't go off on holiday’.

This isn't the first time that the French Ministry of the Interior has been accused of double standards; Castaner has been merciless in quashing the Yellow Vest movement and yet he has appeared to take a much more conciliatory stance with extreme Islamism. If the French start to feel that there is one confinement rule for them, and another for extremists, then the spirit of 'Tenez Bon' will soon evaporate.